FORT LEONARD WOOD – Since he was 12 years old, Spc. Leonne Castellas knew he wanted to be a drummer. His parents said they knew even earlier.
“If we go back in time, my wife Tanya and I recollect that much earlier, when he was still a toddler, he would take the pots, pans, spoons and other metal utensils from the kitchen, put them on the floor and bang away on them,” Castellas’ father, Rodney Castellas, said. “At times, our bedroom door would also get a whack or two. After a while, we got used to the noise and cooking in dented vessels.”
Leonne was raised bilingual, speaking English and Hindi in a British-Indian multicultural household. His parents exposed him to musical genres like jazz, blues, reggae and rock — something quite uncommon for a family in Jaipur, India.
“Being Anglo-Indians, such music was quite common in our homes,” Rodney said. “The blues and jazz music were unheard of in Jaipur at that time, except for a small circle of English-speaking Anglo-Indians. We grew up listening to Count Basie, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Pete Fountain, Duke Ellington, Acker Bilk, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, B.B. King … to name some.”
Sometimes referred to as the Pink City, Jaipur’s buildings within its walled historic centre have retained their terracotta pink color since being painted to impress the British prince of Wales, Albert Edward, who toured the empire’s colony in 1876.
After graduating from St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi at 21, Castellas decided to travel west, and pursue his lifelong dream of performing half a world away in Los Angeles.
Although his gaze was set forward, fixated on the future, leaving the Pink City left him feeling blue.
“It was pretty gut-wrenching,” he said. “At the same time, I was really excited to make that transition.”
Castellas’ musical prowess allowed him to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps, both in his hometown and upon moving to the U.S.
“Music — it’s a global language,” he said. “When I was in India, although I speak fluent Hindi as well, I was playing with this folk-fusion band called Rajasthan Roots in my city. The musicians that I was playing with, they were from small villages in my state of Rajasthan and I didn’t really speak their language … but when we started performing and playing together, it was like we blended and we knew what we were doing. We could basically read each others’ minds and play out of instinct.”
He said he enjoyed the multicultural collaboration that continued in the U.S.
“When I moved here, I also performed with a lot of Swedish, Japanese and Korean musicians,” he said. “I didn’t speak their language, and they weren’t super fluent in English, but we still got along great and performed and played music.”
While studying at the renowned Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, he played at small, local venues to make ends meet. It wasn’t long after that Castellas’ desire to express himself outside the bounds of rigid timesheets drove him to more complex forms of music, like freeform jazz.
Music is “not just mathematical, but also, it’s expression and it’s feeling,” he said. “It’s more than just timekeeping and numbers.”
During his time at Musicians Institute, Castellas had the opportunity to perform at storied venues and studios.
“It’s basically these very iconic venues that made those experiences very special for me, because you realize ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in the same place that these guys did their recording in and they won a Grammy,’ and it’s just a lot of history that you all of a sudden become a part of,” he said.
But these times had their complications — Castellas’ visa to stay in the U.S. was set to expire, and an extension wasn’t coming through.
“It was an extremely uncertain, unpleasant time of my life because you’re kind of stuck in limbo — you don’t know whether you’re going to have to pack up and break away from what you’ve been growing and doing for so long,” he said. “In my case, it was about three or four years.”
He joined another school for another musical degree, but the expenses began piling up, he said.
“Eventually, time was about to run out, so I had to make a call,” he said. “I pretty much made up my mind at that point that I’m going to do everything in my power that I can to stay here and continue playing music.”
The Army provided that opportunity in 2016 when Castellas auditioned for the Army band.
While it took some time to hear back from his recruiter because of changes to the Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest Program — which allows legal non-immigrants with certain skills to acquire citizenship through military service — he was able to enlist and complete initial entry training before ultimately being assigned to the 399th Army Band at Fort Leonard Wood.
“That I’ve been able to justify staying here, being away from family and friends in India for so long, it’s actually all paid off,” he said. “This entire process has taught me a lot about patience and persistence. In a way, I guess it also translates to being a Soldier and never quitting and never accepting defeat.”
Castellas was granted citizenship in October.
“It didn’t really hit me at that very moment, putting my hand up and saying the oath, that now it’s official,” he said. “It started slowly hitting me when I was applying for my passport and my visa and they asked me what my nationality is and I (thought) ‘I’m not Indian anymore, I have to click U.S. citizen.’”
“I also know that being granted citizenship is a huge responsibility,” he added.
His parents came to Fort Leonard Wood from Jaipur in May to see him perform with the 399th’s brass band and jazz combo.
“When we see our son, Leonne, perform, there are tears of joy in our eyes thinking of what our son has achieved,” Rodney said.
Castellas said he owes a debt of gratitude to America.
“Now that I’m part of this country, I feel like since it has opened up its arms and welcomed me into it, I have to step up and do the same for my fellow Americans,” he said. “I think that by serving in the U.S. Army and by sharing my passion and love for music that I’m able to do that.”